I’ll admit, I haven’t been watching as many new movies lately. It’s been easier, especially with Anna around, just to re-stream Mad Men or watch something I’ve already seen. But here are a few I have watched, and my thoughts on them.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood - Oh, Mr. Rogers. I was raised on his show, and while I don’t really believe in having heroes, but if I did, he’d be one of them. I cried all through Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about him, and I cried all through this movie. Tom Hanks doesn’t look or sound like Mr. Rogers, but he does feel like him.
There’s so much in this that could have been done poorly, that could have been maudlin, absurd, or exploitative, but because it’s done by Marielle Heller, it’s wonderful. She might be my favorite American director working today: she really knows how to get into the dark places with such finesse, and to get into the sad places without getting sentimental. I also think Matthew Rhys is one of the best actors working today, he has had my heart since The Americans. (My friend Jaclyn Backhaus said that after seeing him in this, she thought, “Who is this true actor’s actor?”) Halfway through watching this, I remembered he’s also Welsh, so probably had no idea who Mr. Rogers was! Sure enough, in an interview, he said that he had never heard of him, and Keri Russell yelled at him for it. (Don’t worry, he watched it.) Now that is good acting.
The Apartment - I don’t know if I would have fully understood this movie if, a few years ago, I hadn’t engaged in what my friend Tom Blunt’s partner’s mom calls “Pencil Can Therapy.” Basically, she relaxes by decoupaging aluminum cans, and we tried doing it, too. It was really relaxing, but something I ended up putting on my pencil can was simply fascinating to me. It was from a 1961 Life magazine with Jackie Kennedy on the cover, and I still think about it all the time (the fact that it is also on a pencil can on my desk probably also helps me remember):
I mean, my god, they really didn’t see what was coming, did they?
But The Apartment is the perfect movie for that time. You see what’s behind those “prosperous years.” So many people working so hard, for this alleged prosperity that anyone could have, that really only a few people would. Women allegedly having slightly more freedom, but still getting jerked around and taken advantage of. Ultimately, though, Joan Holloway was right: for a comedy, this is also an incredibly sad movie. It’s all about lies: your boss lying to you, your lover lying to you, the American Dream lying to you, learning not to lie to yourself. There’s a reason the musical based on it is called Promises, Promises.
I’ve never seen young Shirley MacClaine in anything before. (I think in my mind she is always about fifty, and already a full-blown eccentric.) It was interesting to see her as young, beautiful, and vulnerable as she is in this. I’d also forgotten that Jack Lemmon is such a great physical comedy actor. Watching him move in sync with his typewriter? Adorable.
Klute - I’ve been curious about this movie ever since I listened to You Must Remember This’s series on Jane Fonda (and Jean Sebring). I haven’t seen many Jane Fonda movies, really only 9 to 5, and whatever you think about her, personally, you can’t deny she’s had a hell of a career. I also really love Donald Sutherland. I thought the writing was great, even if I couldn’t stop thinking of the Woman in a Seventies Movie video; Fonda as Bree seems to be the ur-example here. I liked that they at least tried, in a very limited, ‘70s way, to show the thoughts and feelings of a woman in sex work, without just relying on the same old fallen woman tropes. But it does make me wonder what the more accurate portrayals of sex work on cinema actually are, or if there even are any.
My friend Harry, who I watched this with (via zoom) said he’s heard people say say Donald Sutherland as Klute is the ideal man. Personally, I’ve never been one for the strong silent type or the bodyguard romance trope, but I guess I can see it. I was very concerned he wouldn’t be able to rescue her in time, and she’d be killed. This is a ‘70s movie, after all, and a noir. But — spoiler alert — she lives, and is safe. Funnily enough, I actually can’t remember that many noir films I’ve seen that ended all that, well, darkly. Noir-ishly. Casablanca ends with a bit of heartbreak, but for noble reasons. Really, the only one I can think of with a truly dark, depressing ending is Chinatown, and that movie is all kinds of messed up for all kinds of reasons. Maybe I just need to see more noir.
All the President’s Men - This is undoubtedly a good movie. I appreciate what it did for cinema and that one really wonderful episode of the Simpsons. There are some truly thrilling moments. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve really liked Jason Robards in — blasphemous as it may be, I usually find his performances a bit wooden. Still, both times I’ve watched it, I’ve fallen asleep in the middle.
It’s probably also a generational thing. I know it’s different for those who grew up during this time, but I just feel like we lived through like fifty different Watergates with W. and currently live through about fifty a week with Trump. How about Nora Ephron knowing Deep Throat’s identity years before anyone else, though?
Stray Dog (1949) - Yes, I still love Kurosawa. Yes, I’m still in love with Toshiro Mifune. My god, just the way he wipes his sweaty brow in this movie! A few years ago I was in a hotel room, traveling for work, and I ended up watching a docudrama about postwar Japan. I realized I didn’t know that much about the actual rebuilding of Japan. Kurosawa captures it here (and in several other movies) so well. The Tokyo in Stray Dog does not look like any Tokyo I’ve ever seen in any other movie, or in real life. It looks more like Ground Zero in the years after 9/11, or the ruins of Pompeii. And no wonder: it had been razed by the single most destructive bombing raid in history.
Kurosawa’s relationship to America and the West is always interesting to me. So many of his influences were American or British, but he didn’t seem to shy away from critiquing the Westernization of Japan, particularly in movies like Ikiru (think of Takashi Shimura’s shitty, materialistic, money-grubbing kids) and The Bad Sleep Well (hello, American-style capitalist corporate corruption!) There are no Americans in Stray Dog, but there’s talk of women who have started wearing dresses instead of kimono, the changing manners at the police station, and a wild goose chase through a rapidly-changing Tokyo. It’s a story of PTSD both on a personal and a cultural level. The howls and cries of the “stray dog” will stay with me.
Ball of Fire - I wanted to see more screwball comedies, so my movie buddy Harry suggested this one. (I also knew nothing of Gary Cooper other than Tony Soprano namedropping him.) There were some funny lines, but ultimately, I think this was a corny premise (a 1940s Snow White) stretched too thin, and wasted on a great ensemble cast. Barbara Stanwyck is fabulously charming, funny, and beautiful in it, but she’s also playing a dancer, and it doesn’t seem like she… was much of a dancer? Or at least she doesn’t appear to be in this movie, there’s a rather interesting YouTube compilation of her performances, set to a Ricky Martin song from twenty years ago (?) where she does some ballroom and breakdancing (!) and does just fine. Still, I’d love to see her in more.
Cover Girl - After Ball of Fire, I wanted to see a dancer who could actually dance, so I went with a Rita Hayworth movie. And this one has Rita Hayworth AND Gene Kelly! Holy shit! Now these are the kinds of movies I grew up on, the kind my mother would watch when we were home sick from school, so we wouldn’t think that staying home was all about fun. This worked with my brothers, who quickly tired of technicolor musicals, but backfired with me, who loved them. I can still remember watching Funny Face and enjoying every second of it, even though the night before I’d had a fever so high I’d been hallucinating. (Fun fact: this was about two weeks before we started filming Matilda. I’d gotten better by then, but my voice hadn’t fully come back, so we had to re-dub all my lines from the used car lot in ADR later.)
The conflict at the heart of this movie is whether Rita Hayworth’s character Rusty is going to give up dancing in her fiancé Gene Kelly’s cabaret after she becomes a modeling sensation. Is she going to go to Broadway with a rich beau, or stay in Brooklyn with her friends? You can guess, but it’s still entertaining. Rita’s an amazing dancer, Eve Arden and Phil Silvers have so many great one-liners, and there’s a scene where Gene Kelly, arguing with himself in his head, ends up having a dance duet with his own reflection. But probably my favorite part is when Rusty, Gene Kelly’s Danny, and Phil Silvers’ Genius end up at a diner after each weekend late night show, ordering oysters so they can look for pearls. It has a very familiar “theater kids going to Denny’s” energy. In a good way, I swear.
That Thing You Do - This one I’ve seen before. In fact, at one time, I had probably watched this movie more than any other movie. It was always on TV when I was a kid, and it had great music (and lots of cute actors and actresses), so I loved it. And I loved watching it again at 32. It’s not a movie that changed the world, but it’s a simple story that is done so well.
Adam Schlesinger’s death hit me hard. I’ve always felt he was under-appreciated, and so many musicians I’m close with adored him. He was close with my old college friend Rachel Bloom, and made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the brilliant show that it was. There’s so much to say about him, but really I think my friend Joseph Fink summed it up best here. “That Thing You Do” is just the perfect pop song, that sounds perfectly like the ‘60s, and is a masterwork in itself. There really didn’t feel like any other way to celebrate his legacy than to celebrate his music, and be glad it existed. Next I’ll have to watch Josie and the Pussycats.
Stuff I Did This Week: Performed in Gaby Dunn’s Ocean’s Eleven But Make It Gay! I got to play Carl Reiner’s part, which felt… fitting. If you didn’t have the chance to stream it, you can watch it here! It’s worth it for Steph Beatriz’s coolness, Mal Blum’s ridiculousness, Elise Bauman and Natasha Negovanlis as drag twins, and Jen Richards eating in every single scene.
I also got to make an appearance on Michael Chakaraverty from the Great British Bake Off’s Instagram Live, and he said the jam recipe Anna came up with was the best he had ever tasted. What a compliment!
Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: In the Back of the Larder